[back to previous text]

The Chairman: The ayes have it.
Hon. Members: No, the noes have it!
The Chairman: I am sorry. The last time I chaired a Committee I always forgot to say, “Unlock”, and I was thinking about remembering to say that. To avoid any doubt, the noes have it. Unlock.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Andrew Selous: I want to ask the Government to say a little about clause 19(3), specifically in relation to Jobcentre Plus, which, the helpful explanatory notes tell us, is covered by the subsection. We have the list and we have heard a lot about the local strategic partnership but, if we are dealing with child poverty in an area, one of the key players must be Jobcentre Plus. How will things be different in future with Jobcentre Plus? My experience locally, and what I hear from colleagues across the House about the involvement of Jobcentre Plus at a local level—
Helen Goodman: So that we can have a more efficient debate, could the hon. Gentleman flesh out a little more detail about what sort of flexibilities he is looking for? Then I could respond on whether we are going to go down that path.
Andrew Selous: Of course; the Minister is right to press me on that. I am talking about engagement, not about dismantling the whole benefits structure—it would not be appropriate to talk about that, although we might come on to it in our discussions today.
I am talking about real engagement with local authorities on what is happening in an area in respect of job creation, the skills agenda and the quality and type of courses to which Jobcentre Plus sends people. Only last week I had an e-mail from a constituent who is furious that Jobcentre Plus has sent his engineering graduate son on a wholly inappropriate course—he had less access to computer facilities to look for work than he would have had at home. That is, frankly, a waste of money and has discouraged that individual.
I am talking about a range of issues with Jobcentre Plus. How does it engage with local authorities? It is not always as good as it should be at sitting down with local authority leaders, councillors, council officers and the economic regeneration department of a local area, and getting stuck in at the local level. I visit my local jobcentre regularly. Excellent, dedicated, hard-working people work for Jobcentre Plus. My impression is that they report up to their district manager, who in my area covers the whole of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The district managers look up to the Minister and her ministerial team, but are not as good as they could be at looking outwards in the local area. I think that part 2 of the Bill is about getting all the players—we have heard about the role of the local strategic partnership—to be fully effective at a local level.
In addition, Jobcentre Plus is not good at engaging with the voluntary sector in local areas, and in some cases it is a hindrance to effective engagement. It has stopped the co-operation that used to exist, and which still exists between other organs of the state such as social services, the probation service and health visitors. Jobcentre Plus just says, “No, we can’t signpost, we can’t do that work”. I am talking about basic things such as the provision of emergency food supplies.
I do not know what the Minister does in her constituency on a Friday night when constituents come to her and say that they have no money or food in the house. I ring up my local Salvation Army, because I know that it has food and will take it to that family over the weekend. Why can Jobcentre Plus not signpost that type of service, to tell people that it is available? It is reluctant to do that. I have engaged with the issue for about a year, and have teased it out through a series of parliamentary questions and letters to some of the Minister’s departmental colleagues.
John Howell: I am a bit frustrated with clause 19, and with part 2 of the Bill as a whole, because they do not seem to relate in any sensible way to what happens on the ground. I wish to probe Ministers more on what they think local strategic partnerships do. If the list of commissioning organisations that we have discussed is supposed to represent the bodies that sit on a local strategic partnership, I should say that it does not. The local strategic partnership that I sat on had representatives from the voluntary sector, the Churches, and other bodies that were there because in the mind of that local authority they had a role in addressing the area’s problems.
I cannot see why it is necessary to have a list in this part of the Bill at all. I think Richard Kemp said in his evidence that what was needed was not a duty and all that comes with that, including listing the people who have to co-operate, but a general encouragement for all organisations, including local and national ones, to co-operate in dealing with the child poverty strategy. That would be better.
It is also a bit strange to consider that the child poverty agenda is taken down just one avenue within a local authority. There is not just one channel. I refer Members to my speech on Second Reading, in which I listed seven strategic partnerships, of one sort or another, that the county council in my constituency has, and through which the issue of child poverty runs. The issues that that council has identified as the hotspots in its area for tackling child poverty are in many ways particular to it, and would not be the same for another local authority, even a neighbouring one. I do not see why we are restricting, trying to hem in and make incredibly bureaucratic something that we should trust local government to do. In the evidence sessions, the local government authorities gave enough evidence to show that they are already doing it, and are in many ways streets ahead of national Government, particularly in getting to grips with tackling the real effects of child poverty and producing successful outcomes.
Helen Goodman: The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked about the role of the DWP and jobcentres, as set out in subsection (3). Clearly the legislation makes a difference as it ensures that jobcentres are partner authorities, so the duties to co-operate in making the needs assessment, in setting out the strategy and in taking subsequent responsible action will move from a “can do” to a “must do”. That is a very significant change in the Bill.
We have some good experience. In parts of the country, for example, we have a work-focused services child poverty pilot in which people from jobcentres are working within Sure Start centres to engage with and help people—particularly mothers—back into work. We have just launched a school gates project to improve partnership working between schools and jobcentres, which again is to help mothers back into work. Data-sharing pilots in three local authorities—Liverpool, Kent and Leeds—test the current process for local authorities.
City strategy pathfinders are developing strategic plans to address problems in their areas. For example, in east London we are bringing together local services through pooled funding so that children’s centres, schools, youth offending teams and others are brought alongside the worklessness, skills and FE teams. We also have joint working with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. In Cornwall, a beacon authority has been joint-working with the DWP, pooling budgets and data sharing, and the £600,000 Real Choices child poverty programme. I could go on about Lancashire, Waltham Forest and so on, but I will not. Those are examples of good practice. I am perfectly well aware that good practice does not exist throughout the country, but we are going to put new responsibilities on the jobcentres and our objective is to build on those places where there is good working.
Andrew Selous: I am grateful for that and I do not doubt that there are good examples of best practice across the country. Where it is relevant to meeting some of the deprivation issues that we have been discussing, will she also refer briefly to Jobcentre Plus’s co-operation with the voluntary sector?
Helen Goodman: I must admit that I was slightly concerned by what the hon. Gentleman said on that score. As someone who used to work in the voluntary sector, I favour its involvement and co-operation with local authorities on anti-child-poverty initiatives. That seems to be rather different from what he suggested, which was that it should signpost people who phone up the DWP to the voluntary sector rather than to statutory provision. He mentioned the instance of people phoning up; in my constituency I signpost them to the crisis loans facility in the social fund, and I think that all hon. Members ought to do the same. I would be extremely concerned if he was suggesting that instead of signposting people to the social fund, which is meant to be the safety net at the very bottom of the social security system, we should divert them to the voluntary sector.
Andrew Selous: Of course I recognise the important work that the social fund does and of course I direct my constituents there. I hope that the Minister recognises that the benefits system, comprehensive as it is with wonderful aspirations, is not perfect, and that people fall through the net of crisis loans and the social fund.
I would not be surprised if, like me, the Minister has constituents who find over a weekend that the social fund or the Jobcentre is not always able to help—perhaps because a decision maker is still looking at their case. It is fairly regular in my casework to find constituents who, for whatever reason, have no money and no food over the weekend, notwithstanding the best efforts of the social fund and the staff in the Jobcentre. In those circumstances, does the Minister not think it sensible for Jobcentre staff to have a list of voluntary organisations that could help over the weekend?
11.45 am
Helen Goodman: Again, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s conception of the appropriate role of the voluntary sector.
Ms Buck: The point about such emergencies, which we all experience, is important. Although charitable enterprises can be vital in helping people, if I was confronted with the case of a parent and children who had no money to feed themselves over the weekend—as I have been on occasion—I would get in touch with the duty social worker and ensure that there was a guarantee of help, rather than relying on the possibility of a voluntary or charitable organisation filling the gap, however good they might be.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend demonstrates immense common sense. We now direct people to the voluntary sector on things such as debt advice. However, the route to which my hon. Friend points—that of relying on the statutory services—is the proper approach. I do not think that I can add any more to what I have said.
Andrew Selous: I will come back one more time as this is an important issue. The hon. Member for Northavon often asks for numbers when talking about these issues, and he is right to do so as he wants to know the scale of the problem. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the food bank network up and down the country. It provides the sort of assistance that I mentioned is provided by the Salvation Army and others. Last year, 24,000 people in this country went to food banks. That indicates that these are not isolated cases, and that up and down the country there are instances where such measures are needed, notwithstanding the best efforts of staff at Jobcentre Plus and the social fund, the call centres, emergency social workers and so on.
I do not for a moment suggest that we should sweep away any of the statutory provision. The first duty is for the statutory services to work well and properly. I ask the Minister to look at the evidence and the facts, and perhaps to reconsider the issue.
Helen Goodman: I know very well that the voluntary sector plays a fantastic role in this country. It innovates, provides examples of best practice and, by co-operating locally on the child poverty needs assessment and strategy, it has a significant role to play. However, my view remains that we should not rely on, co-opt or drive the agenda of the voluntary sector. It should remain what it is: voluntary and independent. I do not agree with the picture drawn by the hon. Gentleman, and I am not sure that it is strictly relevant to the clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 19 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Co-operation to reduce child poverty in local area
Andrew Selous: I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 20, page 11, line 45, leave out ‘each’ and insert ‘those’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 5, in clause 20, page 11, line 45, after ‘authorities’, insert ‘as the authority thinks fit’.
Andrew Selous: The amendments are about giving responsible local authorities the flexibility to achieve their statutory duties in the way that they believe is best for them. I put it to the Minister that clause 20(1)(b) is too prescriptive and smacks in part of a Government who do not trust local people to exercise accountability on their local authority through the ballot box.
I offer an analogy to explain my rationale. It would be fair enough if the task demanded by Government of a local authority or any organisation was to shift a load of bricks from one side of a building site to another. It would not be right, however, for central Government to dictate exactly how that task should be done in over-prescriptive detail. The Minister referred in earlier debates to the importance of clause 20(1)(c), which gives local authorities some flexibility, which we welcome. It is important to have the ability to include bodies that are not in the list in clause 19. My worry about subsection (1)(b) is that it might force people to waste time—to come to meetings where they might not have anything to contribute. We believe in giving more responsibility and trusting local authorities more, rather than trying to pin them down and telling them whom to work with, without any choice.
Mr. Stuart: It is also about giving local authorities a sense of ownership and empowerment to tackle these difficult issues. Rather than engage in a needless bureaucratic exercise, they should focus on the job in hand and the place in which they find themselves. My hon. Friend is right to table amendments to give that freedom and sense of empowerment to local authorities.
Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to labour the case for these two amendments. I have set out my concerns about wasting the time of public services. When people travel to meetings, there is a cost. If they are not at their desks, they are forgoing time and attention that they could be devoting to other areas. If they have something to contribute, they should do so and, of course, the local authority can insist on that. For instance, a local authority can say to the health services that action is needed on a health inequality, or say to the police that action is needed in a particular area. It can say to Transport for London—or whoever—that the buses are not running between where people are living and where the jobs are. That is absolutely right. However, this proposal is over-prescriptive and runs the risk of wasting public servants’ time, which I am trying to avoid.
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I share, appreciate and commend the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to localism, which is absolutely right, but I wonder whether he shares my concern. I made the point during the evidence sessions that we have some dreadful local authorities that need a central mechanism and measurement process to ensure that they do what we ask of them.
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 4 November 2009